We need time to stare blankly at our screens.

Do you ever have one of those really annoying days? You know the kind – the days where you have a meeting, then you have 15 minutes before your next meeting, then 20 minutes before another meeting. What are we supposed to do with those little pockets of time in between meetings?

Sometimes I’ll take those 15 or 20 minutes between meetings and I’ll browse TED.com to see if there’s a TED Talk that might offer me some inspiration or insight. Earlier this week I found one entitled: How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas (by Manoush Zomorodi).

During her talk, she seems to equate “boredom” with unplugging from the myriad of distractions modern life offers us through our devices (email, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, games, apps, etc). Whether the correct word is “boredom” or “unplugging” or whatever, I wholeheartedly agree with her thesis that in order to be at our creative peak, we need time to be present and alone with our thoughts.

I used to work for an eye bank (as in cornea transplants) and everyone around me struck me as very smart, and very busy. Walking around the office, you would find technicians in the lab evaluating corneal tissue, distribution staff on the phone making sure the right tissue made it to the correct surgeon for the appropriate surgery… and then you’d find me. There were times that I’d grow self-conscious – everyone around me was busy, doing important work and I was sitting at my desk, staring at my screen (sometimes not really typing anything into the computer for 30 or 60 minutes at a time).

Of course, at the end of the day, I was the one people would come to if they wanted a new, creative idea for how to engage people or train people in either soft or technical skills. The only way I ever found that I was able to come up with those creative ideas – whether for in-person training or for elearning – was if I applied the courage to not care what anyone else thought when they walked by my desk to observe me not really doing anything.

Some of my most creative breakthroughs have come when I’ve had the chance to just sit at my desk and to stare at my screen until an idea popped into my head. Or when I was out running with a friend in the early morning along Lake Washington and we’d find a stretch along our route where we had to run single file – we could no longer talk and I found myself alone with my thoughts.

Some people – whether necessary or not – measure their worth (especially at work) by demonstrating how busy they are with every moment of the day. As instructional designers or trainers or talent development professionals, I think our worth is in our ability to find creative solutions to intractable problems. If you’re looking for ways to be able to sit still and listen for a creative idea to emerge, here are a few ideas I’d like to share from my own experience:

Put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign.

Perhaps it’s a physical sign you need to make to put on the back of your chair in your office. Perhaps it’s a sign you need to put up in your home if you’re quarantined with family. Perhaps you need to just block a chunk of time on your calendar. Perhaps it’s as simple as turning off Slack or email notifications.

When you have to switch tasks between talking with someone who pops by your desk, sending an email, then getting back into the training program you’re supposed to be creating, it takes time and energy and you lose all sorts of momentum.

Apologize, or don’t apologize (it’s up to you), but put everyone else’s needs into the queue (you can come back to them later) so that you can have some solid stretches of time to sit and stare.

Exercise.

Get away from your desk altogether. Whether it’s a morning run, a mid-morning walk around the block or an afternoon filled with Crossfit, mixing your body’s need to move with your need to have some alone time with your thoughts can lead to some of the best ideas you’ve ever had.

Several years ago, I had spent weeks trying to come up with an activity for an executive retreat and I was running out of time to come up with any good ideas. During a morning run, the seeds of this activity began to take root in my brain and I’ve used a variation of this activity at least a half dozen other times.

About a year ago I was hiking through the woods near my house and reflecting on a placemat my daughter had been given when we went for lunch several days earlier. The placemat had a periodic table of food elements on it and as I hiked, I began to play with an idea that turned into this blog post. I’ve since turned this idea into a magazine article, a conference workshop and am currently developing a book based on it… all because I gave my brain some time to think during a hike.

Daydream.

When was the last time you allowed yourself time to just stare out the window (or at your screen) while you unleashed your mind to wander wherever it chose to go? Sometimes your mind may end up completely off topic… and sometimes your mind might bring you to an idea you’d never have had the time to dream up if you were tending to all the other distractions – big and small – of your daily routine.

2 thoughts on “We need time to stare blankly at our screens.

  1. Originally, I was a mens accessory designer and I would drive everyone WILD by seeming to stare at the walls and the ceiling. Then one day, I would just “spit” the line out. My belts and accessories were innovative and successful. I had the same approach when I was in L&D. People freak that you are not doing anything but you are. And my argument is “Design is design. Creativity is creativity.” I had the unfortunate experience once of being assigned to a team where the manager wanted to document my process and my minutes. Not possible.

    • It’s tough to document a creative process. It’s also tough to explain “I *am* working” to someone who isn’t familiar with a less structured way of getting work done. It doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional concept of what work looks like. But the results do tend to speak for themselves!

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